Sunday, April 4, 2010

Archive: "Michael Clayton" (2007)

Michael Clayton (George Clooney) is a fixer. He's the guy lawyers go to when they need some messes cleaned up. These are the kind of messes that lawyers wish to turn a blind eye to, the kind that must be avoided in high-stake lawsuits. Clayton doesn't break the law, but he knows how to bend it a little. He knows when to talk to the right people and how to smooth certain details out. He's not entirely proud of what he does. Late one night at a poker game, Clayton gets a call on his cell phone because a client of his law firm needs help with a hit-and-run just committed by that said client. When the client bitterly states that he thought Clayton was a miracle worker, Clayton states that he's only a janitor. Michael Clayton shoots down the man's options and tells him how it is because sometimes the truth hurts.

After the encounter, Clayton takes a drive and ends up at a serenely empty field. He gets out of his car to admire some horses up on the hill, and gazes at them silently to clear his head. Behind him, his car suddenly explodes. And that's when the movie officially begins as we go back four days previous. A friend of Clayton's from the law firm, Arther Edens (Tom Wilkinson), has gone completely berserk as he stripped down during a Milwaukee deposition and ran naked through a snowy parking lot. Edens has been defending a pesticide company called U North, which is in the middle of a $3 billion class-action lawsuit because the product supposedly killed many of the farmers who used it. His disgust with the company led him to this outbreak and has caused him to be labeled a manic-depressive, where the fact is that he actually may have come across a huge revelation.

Michael Clayton is sent in to keep Arther Edens in line, but there is also U North's counsel at work, Karen Crowder (Tilda Swinton). This is a woman who appears to have everything together from her neatly pressed suit coats to the pearls around her neck. Underneath that, however, is a legal shark ready to make the kill as she hires two watchmen to keep an extra eye on Arthur Edens. The issue behind all of this is simple: The corporation is guilty and knows that it's guilty, and the law firm defending it knows that it's guilty, too. Arther Edens, however, holds the piece of evidence that could blow everything wide open, and there are people out there that realize he must be kept quiet.

But, enough of the legal stuff; the movie is named after its title role for a reason. Michael Clayton has a secret life, one that involves a desperate $75,000 debt after a failed attempt to open a restaurant. He's divorced and only gets to drive his son to school and see him on Saturdays. He's forced to get the money for his debt from the head of the law firm, Marty Bach (Sydney Pollack), who has a viciously dry acceptance of corruption. So, you see, Clayton has his own messes to clean up. He has to discover what his own options are and what his own priorities are, which leaves less time to figure out those of his clients. George Clooney is the perfect fit for this character that is never seen without wearing a full suit. He, too, on the surface appears to have everything in check. Clooney just gets better and better as he brings a deeply rich and layered performance as a conflicted man struggling with his own problems while a ruthless legal case swirls around him. Watch his face in the credits after he gets in a cab and tells the driver to just drive anywhere to get away; just in that short and seemingly insignificant scene, there's a whole range of emotions.

Tony Gilroy makes a superb directorial debut with "Michael Clayton." His previous work was writing the screenplay for all three "Bourne" films. What makes this film such a crackling and absorbing legal thriller is that Gilroy doesn't back out by dumbing anything down. Every nook and cranny in the tense case is fully explored with no details left behind. Every scene counts, including one of a conversation between Clayton and his son, along with a scene of watching Crowder stand before her mirror preparing a speech; they're both entirely effective in their up-close views. Clooney is also supported by three solid performances; these include Swinton, Wilkinson, and Pollack, all of whom provide vivid clarity to the psyche of their characters. Just watching Clayton and Crowder face-off in a searing final confrontation is satisfying all on its own.

As the title suggests, this is a film driven by strong performances portraying strong characters. George Clooney all on his own brings a rough-edged, somber feel to the affair and sets the tone from the start. Through its realism behind the characters, this is a drama that has connections to today's life and is mature, accomplished, and profoundly engrossing. The idea may seem like something you have seen before, but "Michael Clayton" reinvigorates the genre and makes it feel brand new all over again. It's a tale about how far corporations are willing to go, the underhanded violence they're willing to dish out, the law firms that help them get away with it, and the loss of humanity behind certain decisions and schemes; most of all, though, it's a glimpse at a man who's not only fighting for his case, but his soul. It's mesmerizing and one of the year's best.

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